THE SECRET LIFE OF THE ASSOCIATES
Adrian Thrills uncovers the inner thoughts of two "uncompromising maniacs".
Photo: Anton Corbijn
On a stretch of lush greenery in the heart of Edinburgh:, a couple of men in white shirts and dark trousers are enjoying a spot of judicious exercise.
Taking great care not to exert themselves unduly, the pair gently tease and amuse a brace of whippet puppies, cutting a faintly ridiculous spectacle in the shadow of the haughty splendor of the city's castle high behind them.
The two men are Billy Mackenzie and Alan Rankine, singer and chief :instrumentalist respectively in The Associates. The two dogs are Thor and Tonto, Billy's new pets and an excuse for him to devote a larger chunk of his daily routine to an outdoor life.
As we amble through St. Cuthbert's Burial Ground in a blaze of spring sunshine, Billy warn his dogs not to go picking at any loose bones they might find under the marble headstones, while Alan wryly surveys the shoppers up on nearby Princes Street.
Mackenzie- who sings soul with a scope and grandeur that shames most of his contemporaries - is dressed impeccably in a mohair suit, the jacket draped casually over the shoulder and the trousers tapered to the knee to resemble a pair of jodhpurs. His unruly black hair flops over his craggy Celtic features, but there's a fire in his deep brown eyes, a sparkle that seems to gently ridicule everyone around him. His manner is casual to the point of being almost offhand, cleverly concealing an aura of quiet confidence.
This suave assurance is shared by Alan Rankine. The Associates' guitarist is younger - 23 to Mackenzie's 25 - and generally a little more prosaic, although this could be down to the hangover he is still nursing from the previous night. His face is dark and swarthy, his Latin looks accentuated by an open-necked shirt and a couple of days' growth on his face.
After spending most of last year based in London, the pair have now drifted back to Scotland; Billy to his native Dundee and Alan to Linlithgow, a small town between Edinburgh and Glasgow. Despite Alan's hangover, they claim the move away from the capital means they lead a healthier, less hedonistic lifestyle one which allows them to concentrate more on their work.
Billy: "The better shape I'm in physically, the better I feel I am musically. I've got to be dead straight to give my best, I don't need any drugs to influence my thoughts and I don't drink much these days. If I do I just go off my head and get upset, start crying, walk about the house and start kicking things. It's basically down to the fact that I can't stand hangovers ...the pain of feeling someone sticking sand in your eyes.
"As I've said before, I relate music and emotion to athleticism. Athleticism is really important. The cover of our first LP 'The Affectionate Punch' was a way of saying that, with the two of us hunched together at the start of a running track. That's one of the reasons I've got these two wee dogs. When I was living in London I was just drinking myself silly to try and relieve the boredom and ended up feeling rotten all the time. That's why I've moved back up to Scotland and started to exercise myself. I just hate feeling under the weather.
"Actually, sometimes I get this horrible feeling that I'm growing up, my voice is starting to lower and I'm starting to act more like an adult to people like this wee niece of mine. I keep her away from the puppies and little things like that. I'm getting a bit worried about myself."
The Associates are not a group to stick to the simple formulae beloved of the major record labels. As a legion of other bands theorised about subverting the numbing cycles of the music business whilst slipping languidly onto rock's eternal treadmill of albums and tours, The Associates let their actions speak louder than their words.
Last year the band released seven singles, most of them on the London independent Situation 2, a subsidiary of Beggar's Banquet. They refused to make an album or play live.
It was an oblique strategy but one which brought its dividends when after signing to Warner Brothers at the end of last year - their stately single 'Party Fears Two' brought them the wider chart success that their persistence deserved.
Five of those seven singles- 'Tell Me Easter's On Friday','Q Quarters','Kitchen Person', 'Message Oblique Speech' and 'White Car In Germany' -are now available, with various B-sides on a Situation 2 German import album 'Fourth Drawer Down'.
As a document, of the quizzical haunting pop music created last year by Mackenzie and Rankine the LP is an essential compilation. It would have been even stronger if their other two '81 singles, 'Kites' and 'Bounceback', were also included. That of course, would have been too simple and straightforward for The Associates they release their records with a wonderfully spasmodic irregularity and the two remaining singles in fact surfaced on different labels; 'Kites' a cover of the Simon Dupree standard, under the guise of 39 Lyon Street on RSO and 'Bounceback' on Polydor Billy: "We just put a load of singles out for a laugh. We sometimes do all these daft things just for the sake of it, just to try out different approaches. The good thing is that we never have anyone on our backs, no record company to bother us. Even Warners leave us pretty much alone. They know we've got a lot of good pop songs, so they just leave us pretty much to our own devices and on a good day we let them hear what we've done.
"We've never really got on with anyone in the music business. I've yet to come across anyone in an influential position in a record company who has any idea. Basically they're all just stupid and their ideas are rotten, just completely tasteless. Just look at the work that they do! All those disgusting records and horrible artworks. Most of it is just horrendous.
"Basically, there was no one that we could trust, no one that we could put our faith in, so we just had to stop working their way. We had to just stop and put our faith in our wee selves."
Before moving to Situation 2, The Associates had been signed to Chris Parry's Polydor affiliated Fiction label, but found the set-up too limited for their expansive aims. The flexibility they enjoyed on an independent label allowed them to nurture and refine their telling talents, so that they are now much better equipped, both musically and mentally, to handle the massive pop success that will surely come their way in the coming months.
So does signing to Warner Brothers signify a move towards a more populist, mainstream approach - a coming in off a limb?
Billy: "I think it's quite a natural way to go.. Doing all those singles last year has given us the confidence, the ability to talk back to people and get our own way even with someone like Warner Brothers. I suppose we are getting more mainstream musically; but :not in a whacky way. Our next single 'Club Country' is still a real cross-pollination of ideas. It's quite filmatic. I think quite a lot of our songs are quite filmatic, but with more of a steady dance beat and more of a storyline to them."
Would they consider using a 'name' producer - Rushent or Horn - to sharpen further the sound? Their five Situation 2 singles were all self-produced with the help of engineer Mike Hedges, but better production facilities are surely now also available to them.
Alan: 'To tell you the truth, I think if we went for a Trevor Horn production people would get fed up with seeing :us in the charts. I know that we have the songs to achieve that sort of success. It probably will happen that we have a few more hits this year, but I wouldn't want it to happen too quickly. I don't want to slag off people like ABC, but it does seem that they are doing everything too quickly."
Billy Mackenzie has been singing for as long as he can remember- since about the age of four - entertaining aunties and uncles and ladies across the street with that dulcet, dignified voice. His childhood days were hard but happy; his home was on the Catholic side of Dundee, and his family is half-Irish with a shot of gypsy blood.
Billy:" We always used to be very open about things in our family. I was always allowed to do what I wanted. I had all the freedom in the world from the age of five onwards. I'd get up to all these terrible things and never get touched for it. Then I might nick a biscuit or something and I'd get done in!
"I always knew that l could sing. I used to be in school choirs and everything and l got in the cub scouts when I was a wee boy just because I could sing 'The Sound Of Music' for their annual musical. On the Irish side of my family the musical tradition has always been really strong, just as dancing always is, and I just absorbed it all up."
After leaving school at 15 and biding his time as an apprentice electrician, Mackenzie worked selling whiskey in a London Scotch House and travelled to America and New Zealand, before returning to Dundee to open his own second hand clothes shop, an enterprise now run by his brother.
This interest in style is reflected in his own quirkily original dress, assorted hats and berets being a speciality. In a recent NME Portrait Of The Artist, he had the impetuosity to list Italian Casual Wear 1952-59 as a fascinating fashion fetish.
Billy: "Up in Dundee, it's easy to get hold of good clothes quite cheaply. I just really like the feel of good materials. The Italians in the '50s were really good at that.
"It was all '50s suits and trousers, the sort of stuff that places like Robot are doing now. There was a big market for it in a place like Dundee because there were a lot of soul boy types who would he really into all those cuts. We used to be able to get £20 or £30 for a pair of trousers back in 1976.
"This all happened when I was about l9. It was just a great opportunity. I already knew that l was able to sing and this gave me the opportunity to do something else - design clothes and do window dressing. It gave me a chance to pursue those different angles. For me, it was a very similar thing to the songwriting. It's just the thing of making strong decisions, putting this here and that over there.
The partnership between Mackenzie and Rankine dates back to 1976. Billy had been fronting a blue-eyed soul band in Dundee for two years - "a sort of cross between Harold Melvin and the Average White Band" - when he met Alan at an audition for a cabaret group in Edinburgh.
Alan: "We just clicked. Hit it off straightaway, partly because we shared an interest in film music. Musically, our partnership has always worked really well because we have the same interests. On a personal level we haven't always seen eye to eye, but in the main things go okay."
Unhappy with what they were both doing at the lime, the pair pooled resources and formed their own combo, playing the Scottish cabaret club circuit for 18 months and earning over £100 a week apiece for their dedication.
Alan: "It was great training because you could play basically what you wanted to play. It wasn't just a matter of re-hashing all the standards. We could play whatever we liked as long as it sounded classy and wasn't as loud as the club jukebox. We did a bossanova version of 'The Fool On The Hill', stuff like that!"
Billy: "We were dead naive about it all, and we started writing our own songs for he set, all these really stupid cabaret type songs. They were all dead humorous. The most famous one was 'The Shadow Of Your Lung' which was basically 'The Shadow Of Your Smile' with added corny lyrics and a saxophone. I would be playing that and the people would be going loony.
On the horizon, meanwhile, a musical watershed that was to have a profound effect on their future direction was looming loudly,
Billy: "We were doing all these daft songs about the same time as punk was beginning to emerge and it seemed to fit in quite well with our ideas. One of the songs we were playing pre-punk was called '20,000 Years Of Mental Torture', which had punky lyrics and a real Batman type theme tune, all real ramalama stuff. So when punk came along, we could immediately relate to it. Musically, punk was based around Batman riffs.
"I don't think of our songs as being unusual but I suppose they are to a lot of people because there are a lot of odd sounds in them. I'd hate any one to think that our music was 'weird' because I just can't stand that sort of thing.
An Associates song picks an emotion and magnifies it, exaggerating and exploring every aspect, a real torch with the singer immersing himself in every aspect of a situation. On 'Tell Me Easter's On Friday', the emotion is abject pessimism, on 'Party Fears' it is schizophrenia.
Billy: "'Party Fears' could be about a lot of things. It could be about a husband and wife arguing with each other it could be about communism and conservation, political party extremes. It could be about schizophrenics. The lyrics of a song like that go deliberately to the extremes, to get something across like an actor using heavy hand gesture when he speaks a line."
A colleague, when I told him that I was to interview Mackenzie, told me to find out just what the hell he was on about in those vague intuitive songs of his.
Billy (laughing): "I think people ask me things like that because they think I sound so convincing. They ask what I'm on about because they think that I mean it. And I do mean things, but not always in such a literal sense.
"The lyrics tick away at things rather than lay everything straight down the line. You get gists of this and gists of that. But if you listen to everyday conversation, people don't always talk in straight lines anyway. Conversation can sometimes get really abstract so why can't a song be like that? People don't always talk facts. You have to have a wee bit of nonsense in your life.
"My lyrics are a bit like the kind of people I like. I can't stand down to earth, normal people all the time. I get nauseated after about an hour. I need to be around people who have strange personality quirks. Sometimes my lyrics start to nauseate me a bit too, so I start to slip in something a bit daft to keep myself interested.
"I don't really like doing interviews that much because there are no really strong tangents with this group, other than talking about the songs. And I'd rather just do the songs than just talk about them. It's up to other people to talk about them really. You either like them or dislike them.
"People like David Byrne really get up my nose, theorising about things all the time. As far as I'm concerned, you do it and people take it or leave it. With us the songs either hit on the button or they don't."
Signing with Warners at the end of last year doesn't mean they'll break their ties with Situation 2, who are set to release the German 'Fourth Drawer Down' compilation and are also planning to make the band's early sessions for the John Peel Show available as another set of singles.
The band's next single for Warners, 'Club Country', is released next week, to be followed by an album of new songs, 'Sulk' on May 14. As if that is not enough, their debut album 'The Affectionate Punch' has been re-mixed and re-cut by Fiction, with the band's consent, and is to be re-issued shortly Mackenzie and Rankine, meanwhile, are due back into the studios in June to begin work on songs for what will be their fourth LP!
Such proliferation seems to come naturally to the pair. They reckon to have at least 60 more songs down on demo tape including two, '18 Carat Love Affair' and 'Waiting For The Lovebeat', that are already earmarked as future singles.
I wondered whether having such a library of songs on file took some of the spontaneity out of recording.
Billy: "I don't think so, because once we start work on them again, it all sounds fresh and we start to change them around. The riff of 'Party Fears' was five years old but we changed bits here and there to make it sound fresh. But we like to demo songs for future reference just to have some basics to refer back to ...or go back and laugh at!"
There is also Billy's involvement with the British Electric Foundation project 'Music Of Quality And Distinction', an album on which he covers two songs, Bowie's 'Secret Life Of Arabia' and Roy Orbison's 'It's Over'.
Billy: "They asked me to do those two. I don't think I would have chosen to do 'It's Over', but I was able to bend the melody to find my own way of singing it. It was the same with 'Secret Life'. I twisted the song to suit myself."
'Sulk', the forthcoming Warner Brothers LP, should be a fair indication of whether the group are able to maintain and build on the momentum of their five Situation 2 singles of last year. In addition to Mackenzie and Rankine, the album features Michael Dempsey, the former Cure bassman who has played on most Associates recordings since 'The Affectionate Punch', Canadian keyboard player Martha Ladly, once of Martha And The Muffins and Steve Goulding, the one-time Rumour drummer and a recent replacement for the departed Australian percussionist John Murphy.
Rankine describes the three extras as "more than just floating members", although the creative core of The Associates is still very much him and Mackenzie.
So what are we to expect from 'Sulk'?
Billy: "The themes on it start off quite moody but end up very elated. I don't want it to sound like some great concept but that's the way it progresses. But, to be honest, I think that there's only one really great song on it, which is one called 'Skipping'. That's the only song that we've ever recorded that I can just sit back and go aaaaah and really relax to. It's got a really good vocal sound ...not just my usual screeching hysterics!
"I just feel that I'm using my voice in a much more suave manner."
And at that he bursts into a fit of mocking laughter and lolls back onto the lawn beneath the castle and starts to chide Tonto and Thor, as if negating any pompous statements he may have made in the interview, leaving me to ponder just what precisely drives this singularly odd couple in their pursuit of pop class and excellence.
Alan Rankine best sums it up in what I take to be a reference to Chris Parry, their former producer and label manager at Fiction Records.
"Let me tell you," smiles Alan. "There's this inane little New Zealander who once came out with the line, What we're dealing with here is a couple of talented and uncompromising megalomaniacs!"